Senior Sarah Hao remains in Japan for foreign exchange program despite pandemic

Senior+Sarah+Hao+remains+in+Japan+for+foreign+exchange+program+despite+pandemic

Sarah Hao

Angela Qian

How did you get involved with the Rotary Youth Exchange (RYE) program?

Senior Sarah Hao smiles with members of her host family, including her host sister, her sister’s baby and her host mother. They were on a walk during Japan’s cherry blossom season to see the flowers in full bloom. Cherry blossoms, or sakura in Japanese, are very symbolic, representing spring and the fleeting nature of life. (Sarah Hao)

I asked (my parents) if I could study abroad, and my dad was like, “Actually, I think this would be a really good opportunity.” I took the chance and applied because I knew that if I didn’t get accepted, it wasn’t going to be soul-crushing for me because I was really wagering missing my whole senior year to go abroad. I just applied on a whim, and then I got accepted.

How did you end up in Japan?

RYE piqued my interest more than other exchange programs, but a downside is that you don’t get a final say in which country you go to. Rotary does send you a list of countries, and most exchange students get within their top three. Japan was in my top three countries, and that is why I’m here.

Why did you make the decision to stay?

Some (exchange students) were pulled back by their home district in America, and some of them chose to go back early. The Japanese Rotary wanted everyone to go back early, but my parents wanted me to stay in Japan because at the time, they believed that for the next 30 days, America was going to be really high-risk, so they asked Rotary if I could stay for at least the next 30 days, and Rotary said yes.

What was the original timeline supposed to look like and what are your plans now?

I left America in August and would be going back in June, so roughly 10 months. School has been out since March, and in Japan, the new school year starts in April. I was supposed to go back April 20, but now I won’t be going to school (regularly) until after May at least. Currently we go an hour every week in groups of 10 for homework.

How do you feel about staying in Japan longer?

Honestly, I did have a week of panic because everything happened so fast and everyone was going home, so I was really worried because I didn’t want to go home yet. I didn’t want to have this dream of a year suddenly end. Now, everything feels like it’s up in the air because international flights are decreasing. I’m trying to be optimistic because the situation has the ability to get better, but in the back of my head, I’m still worried, like what do I do if my flight gets canceled? What do I do if I’m stuck here? Yeah, I want to stay here, but I don’t want to overextend my welcome.

How would you describe your attitude toward quarantine policies?

I’ve been doing my best to not catch anything because I don’t want to infect my host family. Since they’re taking care of me like I’m a daughter, I don’t want to risk giving them anything, so I’ve been careful with going outside. I think young people need to realize there are other people that could get hurt because of them and their decisions, so be smart. Don’t risk anything. It all seems like just one big joke, one big fever dream, but the numbers just keep going up. If you want this to be over, you need to start acting like it.

What have you been doing in your free time?

Japan’s not as strict as some other countries have been, so there’s still people going out. As for myself, unless it’s with my host family, I don’t really go outside. I’ve been quarantining myself, doing some Japanese homework and trying to watch Japanese videos to keep up with that auditory learning I would get talking to people at school. I’m trying my best to not be another number, and everyone everywhere should also keep that in mind. My mom would say, “Do not take this break for granted. This is probably never going to happen again in your life.” Definitely make the most out of it. Enjoy your time (during) this long extended break for the world.

Take a look at Japan’s response to COVID-19
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